TOKYO — Japan's conservative Liberal Democratic Party returned to power in a landslide election victory Sunday after three years in opposition, exit polls showed, signaling a rightward shift in the government that could further heighten tensions with rival China.
The victory means that hawkish former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will get a second chance to lead the nation after a one-year stint in 2006 and 2007. He would be Japan's seventh prime minister in 61/2 years.
Public broadcaster NHK's exit polls projected that the Liberal Democratic Party won between 275 and 300 seats in the 480-seat lower house of parliament. The party had ruled Japan for most of the post-World War II era until it was dumped in 2009.
Official results were not expected until Monday morning. Before the election, the Liberal Democratic Party had 118 seats.
The results were a sharp rebuke for Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's ruling Democratic Party of Japan, reflecting widespread unhappiness for its failure to keep campaign promises and get the stagnant economy going during its three years in power.
With Japan stuck in a two-decade slump and receding behind China as the region's most important economic player, voters appeared ready to turn back to the Liberal Democratic Party.
A serious-looking Mr. Abe characterized the win as more of a protest vote against the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) than a strong endorsement of his party.
"I think the results do not mean we have regained the public's trust 100 percent. Rather, they reflect 'no votes' to the DPJ's politics that stalled everything the past three years," Mr. Abe told NHK. "Now we are facing the test of how we can live up to the public's expectations, and we have to answer that question."
The ruling Democratic Party of Japan, which won in a landslide three years ago amid high hopes for change, captured less than 100 seats, exit polls indicated, down sharply from its pre-election strength of 230.
Calling the results "severe," Mr. Noda told a late-night news conference he was stepping down to take responsibility for the defeat.
"I apologize deeply for our failure to achieve results," he said. "It was the voters' judgment to our failure to live up to their expectations during our three years and three months of leadership."
The Liberal Democratic Party will stick with its longtime partner New Komeito, backed by a large Buddhist organization, to form a coalition government, party officials said.
Together, they will probably control about 320 seats, NHK projected — a two-thirds majority that would make it easier for the government to pass legislation.
Mr. Noda said a special parliamentary session would be held before year-end to pick a new prime minister.
As leader of the biggest party in the lower house, Mr. Abe will almost certainly assume that post.
The new government will need to deliver results quickly ahead of upper house elections in the summer. To revive Japan's struggling economy, Mr. Abe will likely push for increased public works spending and lobby for stronger moves by the central bank to break Japan out of its deflationary trap.
Still, some voters said they supported the Liberal Democratic Party's vows to build a stronger, more assertive country to answer increasing pressure from China and threats of North Korean rocket launches.
Mr. Abe repeatedly has said he will protect Japan's "territory and beautiful seas" amid a territorial dispute with China over some uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.